The ruddy brick building on Sackett Avenue offers few clues as to its purpose. Perched on a quiet, residential block in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood, the multi-story structure looks like any other forgotten warehouse, a sight so commonplace that it’s practically invisible. But this particular building is home to Phunkenship, a brewery hidden in plain sight.
Step inside and you enter a spacious and attractive barroom carved out of the rough warehouse shell. A sleek blonde-wood bar is studded with shiny stainless taps, beers are dispensed into elegant stemmed glassware, and a tall back bar is stocked with bottles of quietly aging sour ale. Despite the utter lack of windows, natural light floods the room thanks to solar tubes that channel sunlight from three stories above.
“The idea here is to offer a more elevated experience,” explains co-founder Paul Benner. “Sour beer is not meant to be guzzled like an IPA or pilsner. It’s much more complex, meant to be enjoyed and discussed with friends.”
Benner and partner Justin Carson got the keys to this building, which was recently home to a tool and die shop and long ago home to a few pre-Prohibition breweries, two years ago. Benner and Carson, of course, founded Platform Beer in 2014 in Ohio City. Two years later, the team added a large production facility on Vega Ave. Next came breweries and taprooms in Columbus and Cincinnati. The recent acquisition of Platform by Anheuser-Busch InBev has accelerated the completion of Phunkenship, says Benner.
Phunkenship is not a brewery, but rather a sour aging facility, where beers are fermented, aged in barrels and packaged for consumption on-site and elsewhere. Having a dedicated sour-beer facility allows brewers to utilize wild yeasts and bacteria that would contaminate non-sour beers. Batches are brewed at the production facility two miles away, transferred into stainless totes while still hot, and delivered here to ferment and age.
Some are bound for the “coolship,” a large, open stainless tank housed in a cedar-lined room three stories up, where the wort is allowed to cool slowly overnight.
“Instead of flash-chilling the beer down to 65 degrees and pitching yeast, which is what all breweries do, this method allows the hot beer to cool naturally overnight,” Benner explains. “We open up all the windows and allow the air to just flow over it, bringing in whatever wild yeasts and bacteria are outside. It’s all wild inoculation; we don’t add any yeast. Whatever is in the air, whatever is in the wood. Then it starts fermenting like crazy.”
The coolship method is reserved for certain times of the year, like spring and fall, when the risks of dangerous molds and bacteria are slight.
Beers are then bound for wooden barrels of all shapes, sizes and provenance, where they will age for anywhere between six to 18 months. Unlike typical barrel-aged brews, these beers are not stowed in wood to pick up those flavors, but instead to be further exposed to yeast and bacteria in the air and wood, Benner notes.
“When you’re making sour beer, the character of the barrel typically doesn’t add anything to the finished product,” he says. “These barrels can be used over and over; we don’t even have to clean them between batches.”
Already, Phunkenship’s cellar contains approximately 250 wooden barrels filled with slumbering beer. When the beer is “ready,” it will be blended to produce desired flavors and characteristics.
“The aging process is very hands-on,” Benner adds. “You have to taste it regularly and the beer kind of tells you when it’s ready to go. In the end you’re going to blend different batches to get a finished product. The creativity side of sour beer making is really in the blending process.”
For the first time, Platform will begin bottling beer as cans are not suitable for naturally conditioned sour ales. Those bottles and others will be stored behind the bar on their sides for additional aging until they are ordered. A flash chiller will cool them down in mere minutes prior to consumption.
Of Platform’s total annual beer production of 30,000 barrels, roughly 2,000 barrels will be heading to Phunkenship, says Benner.
“It’s still a very small percentage of our overall production,” he says. “It’s a niche product; it’s not for everybody, but for us it’s a way to continue to innovate.”
Benner and Carson’s goal is nothing short of creating a world-class sour beer production facility, and combining it with a taproom offering the largest selection of sour beers in the state. House beers will be joined by guest beers, natural wines on tap, and a cocktail program.
Phunkenship opens to the public at 3 p.m. on Friday, November 1st. Going forward, the taproom will be open Thursday through Sunday, assuming there are no private events. The bar has an indoor bocce court, shuffleboard and plenty of outdoor space. Food, prepared daily at the Grocery, will be on hand for hungry guests. Down the road, a semi-permanent kitchen will be added outside.
Phunkenship by Platform is located at 3135 Sackett Ave. in Cleveland. Sign up for Scene's weekly newsletters to get the latest on Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.